On the Outcome of Interfaith Gatherings

By Kollengode S. Venkataraman

Interfaith dialog has been with us in this area for well over thirty years. A few Hindus and Sikhs, on their own personal initiatives, and decades before temples jumped into the bandwagon, met with mainstream Christian and Jewish groups during the year-end holiday season. After Nine-Eleven, interfaith dialog gained urgency, and officials from temples, gurudwaras and mosques all over the US have become proactive in organizing interfaith meetings in their places of worship.

In India, given its convulsive history in matters of religions and faith, live-and-let-live is the norm more-or-less, with no formal attempts for any faith-related dialog. This works for the most part until fresh inter- and intra-religious violence erupts, after which society adjusts itself to a new pseudo equilibrium. This cycle repeats itself over and over again.

Living in the U.S., I always wondered what the tangible outcome of these interfaith meetings is, given all the efforts that have gone into organizing these events, other than giving the representatives of the different faiths  face time to recognize that the fabric in America’s social-cultural-religious quilt is changing.

Representatives of the diverse faiths participating in interfaith meetings differ substantially on the matters of both body and spirit of the important underpinnings in their respective faiths. But when they share the stage and talk to each other on the effectiveness of the interfaith dialog, and address the general public, despite their theological differences, they will agree on their pessimistic and less than sanguine assessment of these meetings. But they can’t say it in public.

In this background, I read an article by Dr. Farish A. Noor, a Malaysian and a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has spent over 15 years in interfaith dialog, and what he says is quite disheartening:

“I have been in this dialogue ‘business’ (and it is a business, mind you) for more than fifteen years now, with no tangible results, having attended more than fifty conferences, I have had the privilege of meeting the Pope, the Ayatollah of Iran, hundreds of prime ministers, presidents, ministers, deans, rectors, professors and public intellectuals; but with little to show for it. The inter-religious dialogue industry has become a law unto itself, driven by its own infernal logic and political economy that ultimately benefits only five-star hotels who… …host such events.”

He continues: “Everyone agrees that all religions preach peace and love, but as soon as they return they declare war on their neighbors. None of the sensitive, thorny issues — such as freedom of belief and conversion [coercive or enticed, we may add] is ever discussed, and all we have are platitudes and commonsensical bits of pedestrian wisdom dressed up as sound bites… [Meanwhile] age-old differences and prejudices remain intact and nobody really wants to be honest about our collective hypocrisy.”

He goes on: “[In these meetings, speakers] invariably frame inter-religious differences in terms of an oppositional dialectics where the Self [or one’s faith] is contrasted positively to the negative Other; and from these dialectical premises we are [expected] to reach a consensus and a great communal love-in. To expect such results from such flawed premises is silly to say the least, and waste of time and financial resources.”

In Pittsburgh I have attended a few interfaith gatherings myself, not as an organizer, but as a lay listener sitting in the audience. And I see Dr. Noor’s points. Several years ago I attended what was billed as an interfaith meeting at Carnegie Mellon University with a rabbi, pastor, priest, and maulvi, and two lay followers (one Hindu, and the other Zoroastrian) participating. As the meeting unfolded, it ended up with speakers scoring rhetorical points over each other’s faith. A few atheists in the audience derided everybody on the panel.

Often the formats of interfaith dialog are predisposed to failure simply because spiritual journey — the real purpose of all religions — is always arduous, painfully slow and solitary.  Over 2500 years ago, it took several years for Siddhartha Gautama to become the Buddha.  It is no different today.  Decades ago, while in India, I remember reading about a few European Jesuit missionaries working in India for years, only to leave their order, becoming Vedantins.

This solitary spiritual journey, though mentally arduous, I must add, is rewarding in the end for individual Seekers of Truth. Siddhartha Gautama spent years before becoming the Buddha. So is the case with Vivekananda and Chinmayananda in our times, and others in every faith.

But when religions are organized with hierarchies, managing the temporal affairs of churches seriously erodes their legitimacy as we see repeatedly in all faiths, “Harvesting souls” — actually, it is increasing the market share — becomes an objective. “Harvesting souls” is how Pope Paul John II euphemistically put it during his visit in India in 2004 about hitting heard count targets in organized conversions.

Dr. Noor continues: “We talk of ‘bridge-builders’ …as if the inter-religious dialogue was already a contested territory … To even suggest that Is’am and the West require bridge-builders is to assume that there is a gulf between the two, and that this gulf has been there all along.”

But isn’t this the simple truth staring at all of us?

Again, Noor: “The fact is that both the Western and Muslim worlds share the same Abrahamic roots — and that both have been the oldest civilizational neighbors to each other. In our attempts to be politically correct and to recognize differences — we have invented divisions that were not there (or perhaps were not so pronounced in the past) and amplified them instead.. And instead of accepting that neither the Western nor Muslim worlds are homogeneous, we perpetuate the febrile fiction that the two are distinct and therefore need representation and representatives.”

Dr. Noor’s thesis that faiths that trace their tenets to a common root should not have so much strife contradicts what we see all around.  The scriptures of the many faiths themselves and their dogma do not bear witness to this. Nor does the flow of world history. Read End of Faith by Sam Harris for details. Strangely, while Harris is harsh on organized religions, he himself is a seeker of personal spiritual growth.

On the basis of Dr. Noor’s thesis, how do rationalize the following?

  • The strife between Jews and early Christians that persisted through two millennia leading to the Inquisition and persecutions?
  • The strife between the Vatican and the Eastern traditions of Christianity, namely, Russian, Greek, Syrian traditions?
  • The clash between the Catholics and the Protestants in Europe since the time of Martin Luther and the birth of the Anglican Church? Read Ross Douthat’s article “Benedict’s Gambit” in New York Times on Pope Benedict’s overture to the Anglicans to stem the rise of Islam in Europe.
  • North American Evangelicals and Charismatics raiding the flock of traditional Catholics in Latin America?
  • The divisions between Shias and Sunnis soon after the death of Prophet Mohammed? And Shias and Sunnis together not recognizing Ahmedias as Muslims, considering them apostates?

The scene in India is similar, but not anywhere as violent I must emphasize, as among the Abrahamic religions in Europe and the Middle East.

  • So was the case with Hinayana (Theravada) and Mahayana Buddhism at the peak of their influence in India. Ironically, Buddhism, by far the most practical and nondogmatic religion, could not avoid getting enmeshed in dogma after the Buddha’s time. Incidentally, Hinayana (literally, smaller or weaker vehicle) is a pejorative phrase coined by  MahayanisTheravada (or the Path of the Elders) is how Hinayana is now called.
  • Among Jains, Digambars and Shvetambars have had strong differences, though not violent, thanks to the Jains’ commitment to ahimsa.
  • Hindus have had their differences with the Buddhists and Jains, some of whose outcomes were not very pleasant, to say the least.
  • Among Hindus, the Advaitins, Saivites, and Vaishnavites differ on theology, dogma and rituals, which has manifested in silly, laughable ways. The caste differences among them add another layer to the complexity.
  • And Vaishavites among themselves have problems too. In India, the two branches of Tamil Vaishnavites — Vada-kalai and Then-kalai, literally Northern and Southern Schools — went all the way up to the Indian Supreme Court. Why? To resolve whose naamam (the religious mark in vermillion and white clay powder traditional Vaishnavites wear on their forehead) can be put on the forehead of the elephant in the Vaishnavite temple in Kanchipuram. (Note for the uninitiated: The naamam of the two sects differ slightly that outsiders may not be able to notice at all.)

Coming in this tradition of theological nitpicking, Indian communists with their allegiance to Russia have had problems over doctrine with Indian Marxists whose inspiration in China, similar to religious orthodoxies. Recently, Indian Marxists vowed to annihilate Maoist in Central India.

Human institutions are like living organisms. They grow, bifurcate or trifurcate, become weak, die and become extinct, or morph and evolve. And man’s instinct to influence, control and dominate others, and others’ instinct to resist, are visceral that bring out the animals in human beings. However, highlighting the differences in the arcane nitpickings in dogma and theology give man a patina of intellectual sophistication for his instinct to control and dominate. Of course, when intellectual persuasion fails, inducements and brute force are always there.

I think the driving force for much of the religious strife is as much biological as it is theological; driven as much, if not more, by man’s hormones as by his intellect. I use masculine pronouns deliberately. Without sounding sexist, why is that through history, the leaderships in religious and political strife have been overwhelmingly male?  ♠

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